March 15, 2023
One of the biggest talking points at the upcoming Legislative Day event is Palmetto 800, the interoperability radio system that allows for public safety agencies to communicate across county lines. The system–used during mutual aid, natural disasters, mass shootings, train derailments, just to name a few–is in significant need from the legislature.
Palmetto 800 was born out of the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when public safety officials recognized the need to prepare for a terrorism incident and the critical need to communicate between agencies. The inability to talk to each other was a red flag that signaled need for immediate change for an effective response.
In the years following 2001, 800-megahertz technology, which existed previously but never in the world of public safety, was introduced to first responders. Some states, like neighboring North Carolina, built their own radio system; South Carolina elected to contract the work to Motorola, and the Palmetto 800 system was formed.
Towers were built under parameters that 95% of the state would be covered through a mobile radio, or car radio, transmission. But things have changed since the mid-2000s, and the modern first responder must have the ability to communicate with a portable, or handheld, radio that is compatible with the Palmetto 800 system. The strength of transmission has weakened and includes a lot of dead space in counties throughout the state.
Over time, counties have built towers, meaning the local taxpayer has taken the brunt of the cost. It was never intended for local taxpayers to shoulder the cost.
Towers, signal strength, and the type of radio aren’t the only barriers agencies face with Palmetto 800; there’s also a user fee per radio, and the fee structure is based on the number of towers you want access to. Prior to the 2008 recession, the legislature agreed to pay 33% of the user fees; but when budgets were tightened, that percentage was slashed to roughly 5%.
Palmetto 800 hasn’t had significant appropriation since.
Now we are at a crossroads. Agencies are being priced out of Palmetto 800, realizing they cannot afford to build more towers to increase signal strength and pay the user fees. But without Palmetto 800, we risk reverting our public safety communications to pre-9/11 ineffectiveness.
To achieve the desired 95% portable coverage, 50 additional towers need to be built at a cost of $2,000,000 per tower, a total cost of $100,000,000. Total user fee coverage equates to $24,000,000 per year. It will cost $124,000,000 to repair, modernize, and maintain Palmetto 800.
As more and more agencies seek alternative and cheaper communications systems, the further away a fully functional interoperability radio system becomes. Please talk to your legislator about the importance of funding Palmetto 800 when we convene for Legislative Day on April 5.